Mar 172015

The 2013 winner of the Spiel des Jahres is Hanabi, a cooperative game in which 2 to 5 players work together to create stunning firework demonstrations. Does Hanabi shine in the nighttime sky or does it fizzle? Let’s see.

In Hanabi, players hold cards away from themselves in a manner that allows everyone else to see your cards, but not you. The goal of Hanabi is to play cards 1 through 5 in succession in each of the five suits, represented as colors. To do this each player will, in turn, have the opportunity to perform one of three actions: give information, play a card, or discard a card. If at any time players play three cards out of order or run out of cards, the game is over. The neat thing about Hanabi is that rather than the binary win/lose scenario of most games, Hanabi scores players based on how many cards you can play to the table. This is nice because this game is so unforgiving. Each suit contains exactly three 1s, two 2s, 3s, and 4s, and only one 5. This means if any player discards a five, that suit will never be completed. Also, information is a very limited commodity. At the start of the game, players will have access to eight information tokens and they will disappear quickly. The only way to get them back is to discard cards. More than once have I been in a situation when I had no idea about my hand and there were no tokens left on the table and I’ve been forced to discard a card blindly. This brings me to what I think is best about Hanabi.

For what is essentially an abstract game, there are some seriously tense moments in Hanabi. Quarterbacking, which is often a problem in cooperative games, is nonexistent here. Part of that is due to the strict communication rules in the game and part is due to the lack of information you are always dealing with. In my initial play-throughs we relaxed the communication rules of the game often offering a “what do you know about your hand” or “why would I tell you that that card is a two”, but now when we play we are dead silent. There are moments when someone plays or discards the wrong card and your heart breaks, but then there are moments when you lay the right card down on a hunch and jump right out of your seat and celebrate. The scoring method allows you to record how you are improving in the game and once you master the standard game there are several variants that may ratchet the difficulty back up.

What may be a downside is that the team as a whole is only as good as the worst player. Where most cooperative games allow players to come to conclusions together and can avoid some rather foolish decisions, Hanabi places your fate in the hands of each player one at a time. Everybody at the table needs to be up to and beyond par in order to accomplish the impossible 25 points. To me, this is fine. I’m mostly confident in the abilities of my fellow players and I’m far from impeachable when it comes to discarding a “5.” For the most part, everybody is going to come away from the game feeling like they contributed.

As far as the components, there isn’t much to talk about. The cards are of good quality and the tokens are solid cardboard punch-outs. They serve their purpose and don’t detract from the game. The artwork on the cards is simple, yet nice to look at.

I recommend you give Hanabi a try and I recommend you do so immediately because this game is spectacular. I’m giving Hanabi a 9.5 out of 10.